President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech. (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON – Declaring that the nation is stronger “after years of grueling recession,” President Obama advocated an array of modest second-term initiatives Tuesday night that he said wouldn’t bust the federal budget.
There were no sweeping new initiatives. In a one-hour speech that weighed in at a hefty 6,600 words, the president focused at length on domestic issues, including gun control, voting rights, education, immigration and economic development.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Obama said.
The president addressed global issues, including climate change and some of the national security challenges that may well come to define his second term. To applause, Obama formally announced an expedited U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that will roughly halve the remaining force, a reduction of 34,000 troops.
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“By the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he declared, as members of both parties rose to their feet.
In line with Obama’s aversion to greater military involvement, including in Syria, Mali and other trouble spots, the U.S. will leave behind a residual force in Afghanistan of a few thousand troops for training and counter-terrorism, pending the negotiation of an agreement with the Afghan government.
Some of his most emotional language was saved for the problem of gun violence, one of the top items on his agenda. He highlighted the tragic stories of shooting victims, or their surviving relatives, who were on hand to add extra punch to Obama’s renewed plea for new background checks on all gun sales and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons.
Among those were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old majorette who performed at Obama’s inauguration last month, then was slain in a shooting days later about a mile from Obama’s house in Chicago. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), severely injured in an assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011 and now leading a new gun control effort, was also looking down from the gallery.
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“They deserve a simple vote,” the president said, to an audience in the House chamber, where prospects for gun control legislation remain in doubt. “Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. In fact, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can.”
The president defended his counter-terrorism efforts overseas, including a reference to the controversial use of unmanned drones. But he said he would work with Congress to make the deadly targeting “more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
Obama reacted sharply to North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test this week, asserting that such “provocations” would only further isolate the reclusive regime of Kim Jong Un At the same time, he said, his administration will work with leaders in Moscow to make further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.
Moving to strengthen the nation's cyber-defenses, Obama said he had signed an executive order earlier in the day to improve sharing of classified information between the government and the owners and operators of critical infrastructure, including electric utilities, dams and mass transit. Legislation that would have created more comprehensive standards for the private sector was blocked in Congress last year, amid opposition from civil liberties groups worried about individual privacy as well as Republicans and business leaders concerned about unnecessary regulation.
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Many of the initiatives Obama touched on in his speech will probably require executive action in the end, to circumvent opposition from conservatives in Congress.
The nation must do more to fight global warming, he said, addressing skeptics of climate change.
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.”
If Congress won’t act “soon,” he added, “I will,” probably through new Environmental Protection Agency limits on greenhouse gas emissions.